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Framing the Photographer: Discourse and Performance in Portrait Photography

Resource type
Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Framing the Photographer: Discourse and Performance in Portrait Photography reconsiders photographic criticism, theory, and history in terms of the photographic event. I argue that discursive frames—whether formed through art history, juridical language, technological format, or otherwise—inform and interact with the formal composition of photographs, the channels through which photography circulates, and the attitudes and performances of the photographers themselves. Rather than representing a moment, fixed in time, I argue that photography is an event characterized largely by contingency and the relationships between players; these include the photographer, subject, viewer, and critic. This project expands the parameters of the discursive definitions of portraiture to allow for what might be considered the portrait’s opposite – indecorous representations, photography used as a tool for violence or torture, and the act of hiding one’s face before a camera. I therefore consider photographic performances that clash against, or overlap with, conventions of portraiture, a genre defined largely through its ability to confer some form of personhood through the act of looking. In drawing a more inclusive discursive frame, I create space to consider the value of critical models that pay attention to the way viewers experience photography throughout their bodies, rather than simply emphasizing vision. My study of portraiture not only considers faces, then, but also bodies and body language, tears, textured surfaces of skin, memory, haptic qualities of touching or feeling, and the relationship between sound and vision. Each chapter is organized around a central term that reappears across various discursive frames: “Invisibility,” “Intimacy,” “Circulation,” and “Sharing.” Built around these terms, my project establishes the ways in which the various discourses overlap and interact. As a whole, this project combines the study of rhetoric and theory with analysis of the visual and material properties of photographs in order to parse out the histories, theories, rituals, and beliefs that frame body, word, and image.
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This thesis may be printed or downloaded for non-commercial research and scholarly purposes.
Scholarly level
Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Burnham, Clint
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